"Let Me Be Frank With You," Richard Ford’s soft-spoken quartet of novellas about old age in winter, is a book of uncommon grace and resonance. 70-year-old Ford has appointed his longtime friend, literary creation, and mouthpiece, real-estate agent Frank Bascombe of the “Sportswriter” trilogy, to narrate all four stories; since Frank is now 68, only two years younger than Ford himself, this is as much his swansong as his maker’s.
Frank’s wanderings in the novellas all take place over two weeks in December, post-Hurricane Sandy. On these self-described “pilgrimages” through suburban New Jersey, meeting others and their troubles, Frank salvages “the accumulations of life,” as he puts it, from the wintry wreckage. His efforts are a kind of gathering of snow. In a sense, so are Ford’s: each “pilgrimage” occurs a few days after the one preceding it, deftly building in more echoes and layered meanings, and the book that emerges is a handsome shrine of redeemed final moments.
Ford is a subtle artist and a subtler moralist. He knows how to make each novella on the surface a linear narrative about Frank’s day,while suspending underneath it a network of redemptive impulses. In the first, “I’m Here,” the hero fails to commiserate with an old acquaintance who lost property to the storm. “There’s nothing I can do—the familiar dilemma for people my age,” Frank muses grimly. He smiles at his own impotence but is saddened by its implication: life’s sunken pearls can’t all be found again. Yet in the end, one still must “do” something: “So what I do—an act of pure desolation—is hug Arnie back, clap my arms around his leathery shoulders and squeeze, as much to save myself from falling,” Frank says. It is token solidarity, not the real thing, expressed. But it is a move in the right direction, beautifully executed by Ford.
A similar charade ensues in the third episode, “The New Normal,” when Frank comes to see his terminally ill ex-wife and old quarrels resurface. “Don’t presume the past. Be nice,” he tells himself, upon hearing a particularly shattering comment from his ex. The second story, “Everything Could be Worse,” and the fourth, “Deaths of Others,” also make revelations that threaten to shatter Frank: his current home was the site of a brutal double-murder, and his ex-wife cheated on him years ago with his now-dying friend Eddie. For good or for worse, he absorbs the shocks. Time has insulated him. Yet on the way out from Eddie’s, his heart is pierced by a chance exchange with a kind man asking after his son on Christmas Eve. The words come out wrong; the man misremembers Frank’s son. But here again, like in the story of Christ’s arrival to the world on Christmas day, a great saving has been accomplished.
Even the book’s title—with its implied promise of an exchange opening between two parties in late-life, a “Me” and “You,” and the weary appeal in the words “Let Me Be”—faintly hints at this yearning to heal. Ford never preaches through Frank, whose idiosyncratic voice, full of crackling warmth, wisdom, and dry humor, maneuvers ever tastefully above the precarious line of the judgmental: “There’s no right way to plan a life and no right way to live one—only plenty of wrong ways,” Frank says. Yet for all his hands-off moral relativism, he is modestly articulating what he feels is the right way to live: “What’s there is not to be missed or pissed away in a blur,” he says. For him, the “right way” is to notice life, bear witness to it, and contain it in our gaze.
“Let Me Be Frank With You” is wary of endings even as it describes them, or rather describes the asymptotic approach to them: Frank detests “the ‘c’-card, abominable closure,” as he calls it. In a way it doesn’t feel like the book has either started or stopped; the episodes all flow into each other, a linked ring of events. Paralleling this, rather than being declarative and explicit, Ford’s style is lyrically understated. He will have Frank utter things like “Silence is the best defense against non-entities—let them become insubstantial, like a retreating fog.” His laconicism points to silence, though obviously, writing is by nature non-silence. Instead, Frank’s prickly, knowing, elegiac voice approximates the unsayable with his sparse murmurings. He looks at Arnie and thinks: “I’m here. He’s here. But, in another sense, we’re not.” There is no explanation of what the other sense is; there doesn’t need to be, since all that isn’t in the sentences—the sense of not being “here,” that “the rest is silence”—has been conjured up by what is in fact there.
Absence, omission, and forgetting turn out to be the true center of the book; there is no external destination to be striven for, no climax and ending to be buttoned on this tale. It is really this beauty of getting nowhere, like seeing the snow fall faintly through the universe in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” that Ford most exquisitely portrays in the book. Frank has come to the end of the road but doesn’t mind trotting in place, even offering himself as fodder for entertainment. His is a measured review of life’s blows, a last-minute sewing-up of open wounds, a drinking of dregs, a salute to the darkness, and a restrained, never self-pitying study of a man’s life, in a voice paradoxically tentative yet assured. Most of the time, the wise assuredness assures us too.
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